PARIS — In what is emerging as the first serious test of the determination of President Emmanuel Macron to stick to his reform agenda, France on Wednesday endured the second day of a train strike that left stations empty, platforms deserted and millions of travelers frustrated.
French unions, blindsided by the pace of Mr. Macron’s labor and fiscal reforms, have been spoiling for a fight. The terrain they have chosen, the country’s heavily used rail network, has the potential to either make the president buckle by crippling France’s economy or infuriate its citizens and turn them against the unions.
Other French governments have foundered as train strikes have stretched on, and this has the potential to last until June.
The stakes are high. If Mr. Macron wins — he is trying to overhaul the train workers’ ultra-protected job status, among other targets — “he will be seen as a great French reformer,” said Guy Groux, a labor specialist at Sciences Po, the leading political science institute. Meanwhile, the prestige of a leading union, the hard-left CGT, will be at risk, said Mr. Groux.
But if he loses, Mr. Macron risks going the way of predecessors: out the door.
On Wednesday, the normally packed Gare de Lyon was echoing and deserted. Someone could have ridden a bicycle unimpeded across the vast halls where passengers habitually fight for elbow room. The tracks were empty of trains, including those ordinarily bound for Marseille and Nice.
Grinning, red-jacketed workers of the SNCF — the national rail company — who were designated to guide the few bewildered-looking passengers who showed up were outnumbered by them. Only one of seven high-speed trains was running.
Hoping to head off public anger, the unions opted for striking the rail system two days out of five. Yet the nonstrike days could be nearly as chaotic, with those left behind piling into the few operating trains.
Canceled suburban commuter trains, also hard hit, left travelers stranded at the Châtelet station downtown.
“It took me two hours to get to central Paris and now I am stuck,” said Diomande Abou, 28, a computer scientist trying to get to his job in another suburb. “Going on strike is great, but it blocks everyone and we must go on working.”
With the weather improving, university students across France — in Toulouse, Montpellier, Nantes, some Paris campuses and elsewhere — have also begun their habitual springtime walkout, this time to protest Mr. Macron’s intention to make university entrance more selective. Garbage workers are striking and trash is piling up.
Mr. Macron has been criticized for not adequately explaining his reform agenda and for not preparing the public enough. But his newest reform target— the railways — is in line with what he has criticized before as “the Statutory Society,” on which he has had a fat bull’s-eye from the beginning. Mr. Macron’s idea is that overprotected entities in French social and economic life block “any prospect of mobility” and must be transformed.
His main current objective is a set of special provisions known as the Statute of Railway Workers, alternately decried and celebrated as a corporatist holdout from an earlier era. French railway workers are hired for life, can retire in their 50s — as young as 52 — have the right to pensions based on their highest salaries and enjoy subsidized housing.
The SNCF is $68 billion in debt, has costs far higher than its German counterpart and runs high-speed trains that are technological wonders but are not very profitable. While these difficulties go well beyond the workers’ statute, it is over that important symbol that Mr. Macron has chosen to stake his fight.
“It’s a symbolic battle, but one that is a key element in defining the future of French society,” said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a centrist member of Parliament.
But the railway workers, led by the once Communist Party-affiliated CGT, broke a government in the 1990s and they have not forgotten. Mr. Macron’s proposed reform would not affect current workers, only future hires. The CGT is fighting it anyway. There is “huge social discontent” the CGT’s leader, Philippe Martinez, said Tuesday, and he intends to take advantage of it.
But it remains to be seen whether either that diagnosis or its prescription is correct. For now Mr. Macron appears to have a slight edge over the rail workers. The percentage of employees on strike at the SNCF declined on Wednesday to 29 percent from 33 percent on Tuesday — “not a very good sign” for the strike, Mr. Groux said.
Polls show that a small majority of French view the strike as unjustified. Mr. Macron’s popularity ratings have risen slightly as a majority declare themselves in favor of his reform plans.
And with a series of holiday weekends coming up in May and then national exams in June, “the risk to the unions is very, very high,” said Mr. Groux.
“There are many, many elements that could make this strike very unpopular indeed,” he said.
Mr. Macron has shown no signs of backing down. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the National Assembly on Tuesday: “I daresay I am just as much hearing the strikers, who are certainly making their feelings known, as those who don’t accept this strike. Specifically those who want to go to work, who want to enjoy their constitutional right to come and go as they please.”
And Mr. Macron, admonished to hang tough by a passer-by over the weekend, replied simply: “Don’t worry.”
Mr. Bourlanges, the member of Parliament, predicted that Mr. Macron would win this fight as he has so far won other face-offs with the unions. “He won’t give up, and the people will finally say, it’s not the president who is preventing us from traveling,” he said.
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